Traditionalist Islam states that the messenger is said by the Quran to be ‘a beautiful example’ (uswatun hasanah). This mentioned in Chapter 33 Verse 21:
لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا (الأحزاب: 21).
Verily, for you, in the messenger of Allah, is a beautiful example for those who incline to Allah and the last day and those who remember Allah much.
This verse is taken to mean that, in order to make the messenger of Allah the primary example in our lives, we need Hadith and Sunnah which record his sayings, doings and abstinences.
The Quranist response: This conclusion is illogical for the following reasons:
A. The same phrase, ‘a beautiful example’, is also used for the Quranic personality, Ibrahim. Ibrahim is the second most mentioned personality in The Quran at 69 times. He has many unique traits associated with him, one of which is the phrase ‘a beautiful example’ (uswatun hasanah). This is not mentioned once but twice:
قَدْ كَانَتْ لَكُمْ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ فِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَالَّذِينَ مَعَهُ
Verily there is for you a beautiful example in Ibrahim and those who are with him…
لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِيهِمْ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُوا اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ
Verily there is for you a beautiful example for those who incline to Allah and the last day….
The exact same phrase ‘uswatun hasanah’ is used for both verses. 60/6, the second of the two, even has the same phrase as the opening verse, 33/21 which is ‘for those who incline to Allah and the last day’. Yet, there is no call to find the Hadith about Ibrahim. If anything, Traditionalists actually consign the stories of the previous messengers as ‘sharias of the past’ and hence not applicable to Muslims.
B. The context of 33/21 itself. This chapter of the Quran (‘Al-Ahzaab’, according to Traditionalists) is only one of three chapters which begin with the call ‘O Prophet’ (yaa ayyuha an nabi), the other two being chapters 65 an 66. As such, we can see this chapter as the system of the Prophet. And if we analyse the passage in which 33/21 appears, the concept is the conflict between those who operate the system as well as those who oppose them. The Prophet is thus a beautiful example for those who steadfastly protect the system of peace and justice.
This is what is meant by the last phrase of 33/21 which is ‘those who remember Allah much’. This refers to the establishment of the community and the vivification of Allah in our lives. How can we prove this? Another verse which uses this is:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا لَقِيتُمْ فِئَةً فَاثْبُتُوا وَاذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ (الأنفال: 45).
O you who belived, when you meet a party, be firm and remember Allah much that you may be successful.
The context of 8/45 is also like that of chapter 33 above: that of a conflict and the establishment of the system of peace and justice. Hence, ‘remembering Allah much’ is a specific pattern of acts.
It is also no coincidence that the aforementioned verses about Ibrahim, 60/4&6 is also in the context of the establishment of the system. This can be seen especially in 60/12 where immigrants seek protection with the Prophet.
C. Logically speaking, can we actually copy all aspects of Muhammad’s life? He lived in a specific time and place. He belonged to a specific culture and was of a particular gender. It is impossible for anyone to copy all aspects of his existence. Even Traditionalists who believe in taking Muhammad as a universal example do not follow all examples of his life. For example:
– most of them do not speak Arabic
– most of them use the internet
– most of them ride in cars.
Therefore, every one of us must have limits on the extent which we imitate the messenger. Traditionalist do recognise this because they do separate between his ‘worldly’ decisions and his ‘religious’ ones. Strangely, 33/21 itself does not.
So how far do we copy the messenger? Rather than pretend to be doing so in every aspect of his life or creating artficial boundaries to demarcate between the ‘wordly’ and ‘religious’ aspects of his life, it is better to stick to the meaning offered by the context of 33/21 which is, that the ‘beautiful example’ is in the establishment of the system of the Prophet.